Harmony of the Gospels

(35) Parable: The Laborers of the Eleventh hour
Matthew 20:1-16

1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard.

The parable of the laborers is found only in Matthew. 

It is connected to the preceding chapter and appears to add to what Jesus said concerning the kingdom of heaven. 

At the close of the chapter He said that “many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” 

He may have given this parable to provide further explanation for that line of reasoning.

In any event, Jesus meant to teach just one thing: That some who think they’re first in the world are going to find themselves last in heaven. 

He said that a number of times (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30). 

Heavenly standards and earthly standards are so utterly different that many of the earth’s humblest Christians will have the highest places in heaven; and many of the churches great dignitaries will be under those who are the humblest believers.

The householder in this parable is Christ Himself, the Master of the vineyard, and the field of labor represents service to the world through His church.

It is harvest time and the Master of the vineyard needed more workers, and therefore, early in the morning, probably dawn; the first workers were hired.

2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

A penny represents a denarius, or a common day’s wage for an average worker. 

The wage offered doesn’t prove that the rewards of heaven are given in payment for works we have done or for a debt we are owed. 

No; it is all of grace; free grace signifies that there is a reward waiting for us and it is a significant one.

Roman’s 4:4 says, “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.” 

In other words, if God’s rewards were payment for work we had done, then it would not be grace.

We can be sure that our reward will be “Whatsoever is right.” 

You will never lose anything by working for God: The crown set before us is a crown of righteousness, which the righteous Judge shall give.

The laborers were only hired for one day. 

It is only a short time that we have to work for the Lord, but the reward is for eternity. 

That thought should encourage us to use our time wisely and work hard.

3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,

The third hour, by the way we tell time today, would be 9am.

The market place was where those who wanted to work waited to be hired. 

Some were hired early in the morning, but there were others still waiting and hoping for work, because they had to feed their family. 

These were not lazy men, but there was nothing to do except wait. 

4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.

The master of the vineyard told all those who wanted to work to go work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. 

He must have been a man who was trusted in the community, since this group of workers never agreed with him on a certain amount for their pay. 

Instead, they relied on his reputation as a man of integrity, and each worker responded to the opportunity immediately

The vineyard represents our world, and the Master has given us the Great Commission to take the gospel to the lost everywhere.

God will not turn any away that are willing to be hired.

5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.

The householder went to the marketplace at noon and 3pm and hired more workers.

6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?

The 11th hour is 5pm when the day is almost gone. 

There were a few men just hanging around the market place, and probably none of them expected to be hired. 

They may have stayed just because they couldn’t go home and disappoint their hungry wife and children.

The master of the vineyard may have been surprised to see any one still there, and so he asked them, “Why stand ye here all the day idle?”

There is a message here that we should remember. 

Some enter into the kingdom of God in old age, at the eleventh hour, when life is almost spent.

But none enter in at the 12th hour when life is done.

You must enter in when there is still the opportunity to do so; while there is life, there is hope.

Some people put-off salvation until they are old, and then they think it’s too late; but remember, that now is the accepted time; if we will hear His voice, it must be today.

Old sinners will be accepted just as readily as young ones, if they truly repent of their sins and ask Almighty God to save them.

Nothing is too hard for Him.

7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.

The pay scale will be whatsoever is right.

Now, I don’t think you and I could work under an arrangement like that. 

The bosses’ idea of what the right pay is going to be is probably going to be different from my idea. 

However, those who labor for Jesus can trust  His justice.

8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.

“When the evening was come”, that is, at the end of the day, the day-laborers were called and paid.

The order in which they were to be paid was not the way it is usually done. 

In stead of paying those who worked the longest first the steward is instructed to pay those who had started at the 11th hour, first. 

On the great day of the Lord’s return, the dead in Christ shall rise first, yet they which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds; no preference will be given to seniority.

9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.

The giving of a whole day’s wages to those who only worked one hour is designed to show that God distributes his rewards by grace, and not out of debt.

Some of the workers may have wasted their time and even though they were there most or all of the day, they may have in all honesty labored in the vineyard scarcely one hour of their time. 

But, because we are under grace, and not under the law, even such substandard services, when done in sincerity, will not only be accepted, but by free grace they will be richly rewarded.

10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.

The more you work, the more you make is a notion that makes workaholics out of many men and women today. 

It’s the common feeling today as well as in Jesus’ day that hard work is rewarded. 

So why wouldn’t those who worked the longest expect to receive more that the others? 

But everyone was paid the same.

Everything God has done for humanity is grace; individuals do not earn His favor, and He is never in their debt.

God is sovereign—He is in charge.

Rank, position, and reward are His to give to whomever He chooses.

This parable illustrates two other points: First, God is concerned with far more than the amount of work done, and second, people may get angry with God because He is viewed as generous with others while only being fair with them.

11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.

This parable of Jesus is similar to another parable He gave; the parable of the prodigal son.

Just like the older brother in that parable protested at the reception of his younger brother, and complained of his father’s generosity to him; so did these laborers quarrel with their master, and found fault with him, not because they did not have enough, but because the others were made equal with them.

They boasted about the great job they had done, just like the prodigal’s elder brother did. 

They declared, “We have worked hard, and we have been out in the heat all day.  Now these men have worked only one hour, in the cool of the day; and yet you have made them equal with us.”

Here, Jesus has given us an illustration as to the position of the Gentiles, who only just recently have been called into the kingdom of the Messiah.

The Gentiles have as many of the privileges of the kingdom as the Jews have, even though they have been laboring in the vineyard of the Old Testament church, under the yoke of the ceremonial law, in anticipation of that kingdom.

13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?

However, he reminded them that he had been fair to them in paying them what they agreed to earlier; his contract with them had been fulfilled.

They had no reason at all to complain and to say he had been unfair. 

He said, “Friend, I do thee no wrong.

It is undeniably true, that God can do no wrong.

Whatever God does to us, or withholds from us, he does us no wrong.

If God gives grace to others, which he denies to us, He is being kind to them, but not unjust to us.

To convince the murmurer that he did no wrong, he reminds him of the bargain:

"Didst not thou agree with me for a penny?"

And if he agreed, then he has no reason to say he has been wronged.

14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.

The house holder holds the man to the agreement they made. 

He will receive only one penny; he tells him to “Take that thine is, and go thy way.” 

The other laborers will receive the same.

The principle Jesus is teaching here is that we are to be content with such things as we have.

Instead of complaining that we should have more, let us take what we have, and be thankful.

If God is better to others than to us, we have no reason to complain, since He is so much better to us than we deserve

15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?

Once again, the householder affirms his justice and sovereignty; “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own?”

God is sovereign, and the Owner of everything; therefore He may give or withhold his blessings, as he pleases.

When it happens we should say, “He hath taken away; but he originally gave.” 

We depend upon Him for so much that it’s not right for us to quarrel with Him.

The householder can sense envy in the complaints of the laborer and he asks, “Is thine eye evil, because I am good?”

Envy is not part of God’s nature, for He is good, and does good, and is happy doing it.

It is a direct violation of the two great commandments; to love God, and to love our neighbor.

16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

This is a tremendous parable which illustrates an important truth: It is not the amount of time which you serve or the prominence or importance of your position which determines your reward. 

Rather, you will be rewarded for your faithfulness to the task which God has given you to perform, regardless of how insignificant it appears or the length of time you serve. 

However, only God is able to judge your faithfulness, therefore, don’t watch what others are doing and don’t become distracted by what they say about you, but be faithful to do what God has called you to do.

“So the last shall be first, and the first last.” 

Many men who have been judged great by worldly standards will not be judged by God to be worthy of heavenly rewards, since they were not faithful in their service to Him. 

We don’t work just to receive rewards, but we receive heavenly rewards because we have done what He called us to do.

“For many be called, but few chosen.” 

All men will receive a call to accept the salvation that Jesus made possible. 

For whosoever will may come because God is not willing that any should be lost, but He desires that all men and women are saved. 


Because God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Only a few, however, will not resist the Holy Spirit’s urging to come and receive the gift of God. 

I wonder, when I enter through the gates of heaven, will there be those who will be surprised to see me there. 


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